Table of Contents
By the same author
The Road to Lichfield
Treasures of Time
Next to Nature, Art
According to Mark
Pack of Cards and Other Stories
City of the Mind
Beyond the Blue Mountains
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived
A House Unlocked
Copyright Â© Penelope Lively, 2005
All rights reserved
PUBLISHERS NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Lively, Penelope, 1933-
Making it up / Penelope Lively.
eISBN : 978-0-143-03784-2
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To Lawrence and Helen
When I was very young I made up storiesâthe refuge of an isolated and frequently bored child. These were fables that I told to myselfâlong satisfying narratives that passed the time and spiced up otherwise uneventful days. For this was how life seemed to me, growing up in Egypt in the early 1940sâthe Libyan campaign ebbing and flowing across the desert, the Middle East seething with its nascent conflicts. With the wisdoms of today, I see that I was living in interesting times, but a seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old has strictly personal horizons, and my idea of a spot of drama came from my readingâfrom Greek mythology, from
The Arabian Nights
. My internal narratives featured gods and goddesses, heroes, mythical figures, magicians and princesses. And, of course, myselfâout there in the thick of it, with a starring role. And now, at the other end of life, storytelling is an ingrained habit; I wouldn't know what else to do. But the mythology that is intriguing today is that of imagined alternatives. Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climactic moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome.
Novelists have absolute control over their materialâwhat to put in, what to leave out, how people are to behave, what is to happen. That, of course, is also the problem with writing fiction, and accounts for much, from writer's block (which means simply that you don't know where to go next) to individual shortcomings. But the writer is able to impose order upon chaos, to impose a pattern. Real life is quite out of control; you have been a straw in the current, it seems, snagged up against a rock, hurtling down a rapid, not quite sucked into a whirlpool.
This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation. That word has a precise meaning: in psychiatric terminology, it refers to the creation of imaginary remembered experiences which replace the gaps left by disorders of the memory. My memory is not yet disordered; this exercise in confabulation is a piece of fictional license.
The Mozambique Channel
My childhood was spent in a garden. This garden was in
Egypt, a few miles outside Cairo, but its furnishings were Englishâponds and pergolas and rose beds. There were majestic eucalyptus trees, with which I communedâchildren are natural animists. Beyond the garden were fields of sugarcane, mud villages, palm trees, donkeys, and camelsâthe familiar trappings of my world. I had been born in Egypt and knew nowhere else; England was a vague memory of a cold, damp place visited when I was very young. And on the outer rim of this known landscape was the desert, to which we went for picnics, though not just now because it was out of bounds. It was full of soldiers, and battles were being fought there. I accepted this distant unrest as a normal procedure and in any case it was nothing to do with me, busy with my fantasy life beneath the eucalyptus trees. Except that it was, of course.
In the spring of 1941 the German advance across Libya brought Rommel's army to Sollum, on the western edge of Egypt. The British garrison at Tobruk was encircled. A British offensive at the end of the year had Rommel in retreat, but in June 1942 his Panzer divisions came surging on again. Tobruk was taken. The Eighth Army fell back,
and the Germans entered Egypt. They halted at El Alamein, a mere seventy miles from Alexandria.
Everything pointed to a German assault on Cairo. An aerial invasion was anticipated, along with widespread bombing of the city. These were the days of “the Flap,” when the burning of the files at the British Embassy and GHQ sent charred paper raining down onto the streets, the banks were besieged, and the railway station was packed with those seeking flight. The wives and children of military personnel had been evacuated the previous year, but British residents had stayed put, for the most part. Now, there was a serious exodus. Family parties headed in different directionsâthe civilian expatriate families whose men worked for Shell and the other oil companies, the appendages of the engineers, the bureaucrats, the government administrators, the Embassy and Consulate staff, the bankers like my father, who worked for the National Bank of Egypt. Many went to Palestine, as it then was; others to Kenya, Tanganyika, Aden. And those who could get a passage boarded ships bound for South Africa. Cape Town was said to be delightful.
She stood on the promenade deck, up against the rails, looking down at the water and quayside, keeping a careful hold on Jean. The rails had streaks of orange rust and she didn't want Jean's frock stained, clean on today, so she wouldn't let her hang over the top rung like some of the children were doing. There were native boys lined up on the quayside who would dive for piastresâthey gesticulated and pointed and someone on the ship would throw a ten-piastre piece up in the air, and down it would go, flicking the water, and the boy would already have flung himself after it and time and again they'd surface, clutching the money.
There were people still coming on board. She could see the Stannards making their way up the gangplank, with that Irish nanny holding the baby who was yelling his head off, and Mrs. Stannard shouting at the porters. One of them had just dropped a hat box. Thank goodness for having got on board early; she had already unpacked their things and Mrs. Leech was off at the Purser's office trying to get them changed from second sitting to first for lunch.
Suez. She'd never been to Suez before. Port Said, lots of times. Ismailia. Qantara. Never Suez.
She was Shirley Manners, of Pinner, but no one called her Shirley now. She was Nanny. Or she was Film Star; that was what the other nannies called her because she was pretty. She wished they wouldn't; it embarrassed her, but they meant it kindly, just a joke. It didn't suit her, either, as a nickname; she wasn't that type. On her afternoons off she wore lipstick, never at other times. And she saved her only pair of silk stockings for then, and her two good frocks that she'd made herselfâseersucker from Cicurel. Ordinary days she always wore the sameâgray or navy shirt-waists with a gray or navy cardigan in winter. The gray serge suit for Sundays if they went to the cathedral. And a hat, gray or navy felt with a matching petersham ribbon.
One thing was already clear, this wasn't going to be like P&O or Bibby Line before the war. There weren't the white-jacketed stewards, and the ranks of deck chairs with rugs, and the nice cabins. This was a troop ship. She had brought soldiers and military supplies out from England, right round by the Cape, weeks at sea, and now she was going back for more, and dropping several hundred women and children off at Durban and Cape Town on the way. So the men in white jackets weren't stewards but naval officers, who were running the ship, and Mrs. Leech was already saying they were absolutely sweet. And there were no deck chairs but notices everywhere about Lifeboat Stations, and the cabins were very basic and not enough room. Four bunks, and they'd got a retired teacher from the English School in with them, a bit of an old prune-face, to be honest. Mrs. Leech didn't reckon much with that; she was going to have a quiet word with the Purser and see if there couldn't be some other arrangement for her.
They were saying there'd be a big battle soon, in the desert. They were saying Rommel would push through to Alex. It wouldn't happen, she was sure of that. So was Mrs. Leech, so were most people. It was all just a flap; in a few weeks or months they'd be back, and all this upheaval for nothing, except that actually she didn't half mind seeing South Africa, they said it was so different from Egypt, and Cape Town quite English really. Mrs. Leech didn't mind either, though she kept going on about how beastly it was having to leave Reggie behind. The Consulate staff were staying, of course, and the Embassy, and the other men, come to thatâthe government advisers and the Shell people and the Bank people. It was just women and children being shipped off. Lots of families had preferred to go to Palestine, but Mrs. Leech had been there several times, and never to the Cape.
The deck was packed. There were people who'd come to say goodbyeâthe loudspeakers were calling for them to go ashore nowâand natives selling oranges and mangoes and peanuts and pistachio nuts and everyone milling around meeting up with friends. That was what Mrs. Leech would be doing too, down at the Purser's office. She was already fussing about who they'd get on their table.
Shirley didn't really like Mrs. Leech. Mr. Leech was all right, but she didn't see so much of him, so that was neither here nor there. Jean was a dear little girl, good as gold, which was why Shirley stayed: she loved Jean. Oh, she could have got another job with a snap of her fingers, anytime she liked, and Mrs. Leech knew that. People were crying out for English nannies; the rich foreign families would pay the earth, and some girls took advantage. But it wouldn't be her cup of tea, no thank you; she'd rather an English family frankly. Not that she couldn't have taken her pick there too. Lady Clayton had come over and talked to her for ages at Billy Clayton's birthday party, too nice and friendly for words, and Shirley had a pretty good idea what that was all about. So Mrs. Leech knew that if she overstepped the mark, Shirley would be liable to pack her bags, which was the last thing Mrs. Leech wanted. She would be seeing to Jean herself until she could find someone else, and then probably she'd have to settle for one of those Armenian girls who let the children run wild and hadn't a clue about table manners.